12.12.2004 - nonentity

Distracted to the Point of Distraction

What I find myself struggling against (or with, or around, or inside of) most often with this space is the urge to write about why I'm writing about something; there's a constant shifting of focus from the thing I'm interested in to the reasons I'm interested in that thing. I'm sometimes surprised I don't lock up completely, stuck in an infinite regression of focus. Given very little time to post, though, the end result is that I either post nothing or ???

I can't concentrate ever. It feels like there's something that won't allow me the indulgance of concentration. Concentrating on one thing means ignoring everything else, and my filters won't allow that those things are ignorable. Faced with a dwindling amount of time to spend on any one issue, it seems as if I can not afford to ignore any issue for any significant amount of time. All of which is obviously counter-productive. My life is in a constant state of deadlock, where my inability to prioritize, to leave unstarted business alone in the interest of focusing on more pressing matters, means that everything remains unfinished.

This isn't absolute; at the very least I'm restrained by the fact that time doesn't suffer from any similar affliction. Time has no problem completing what it's set out to complete. Many of the problems that tower over me are time-sensitive, and whether I complete the related tasks or not the deadline passes and the pressure from the problem shifts. (It doesn't always go away -- very often missing a deadline creates other, usually more painful, problems for the future.)

This sickness is most accute when I manage to get myself to the portion of any task that requires the most effort. Solving difficult tasks takes concentration; concentration requires the ability to cross chasms of silence without losing course. This has many manifestations -- from watching this blinking cursor while trying to think of the word "manifestations" without alt-tabbing to another window to read something while I wait, to wrestling with my budget and my available resources to figure out how to pay all of our bills without letting some fall through the cracks.

To my mind there's an obvious correlation here between having options at my disposal for switching tasks mid-stream and sitting at a computer using an operating system like windows. It's the much-maligned demon of the short attention span, the poison in the well of modernity. When something on TV gets boring or uncomfortable I can switch to something else using the remote control that's always within an arm's length of me. When a problem at work starts to get difficult I can hit alt-tab and continue reading whatever's open in my browser.

These "conveniences" make distraction simple. Whether they're intended as such or not, they almost seem to be designed with the express purpose of distracting us. The advantages of having a remote control for television would've been obvious, I think, to anyone used to having to stand or kneel or sit on the floor in front of a television without such a contraption, twisting a dial to get to another channel before returning to a more comfortable seat. The annoyances associated with that process would make the utility of a device that eliminates it seem obvious. In much the same way, the switch from manual typewriters, to electric typewriters, to word processors looks like a series of steps toward a more streamlined process, eliminating many steps which served no other purpose but to take time that could otherwise be spent performing the real task at hand.

(sidebar -- going from manual channel switching to remote controls must've in part enabled the explosion in the number of available channels.)

(sidebar (ugh) -- the outward signs of the silence mentioned above make me appear to be idle, and my being idle is an invitation for someone to tear me away from what I'm doing. It's very difficult to work on something like this (writing whatever this is) when faced with my wife wanting to have a conversation.)

Perhaps those mindless manual tasks -- walking to the television to switch the channel, re-typing entire pages after making one too many eraser holes in the paper -- actually served to keep people focused. Those tasks themselves require a kind of focus unlike this other, mental kind. They are very specific tasks that require very specific actions to accomplish, and they require 100% physical participation. (more?)

As to my personal problem, though, I'm not looking to blame these external forces. While quite possibly having grown up in an environment where distraction was always within easy reach has helped to shape me into this neurotic person who's constitutionally unable to complete anything, the fact remains that being that kind of person is decidedly undesirable. This is not a trait I wish to leave unchallenged.

(sidebar again -- all of these sidebars, and this obvious shifting of focus within the confines of what I'm writing here are more symptoms of this affliction. Am I writing about how modern time-saving devices (for lack of a better word) defeat their own purpose by preventing us from focusing and thus making tasks take more time to complete (switching focus from this to that has its own overhead, perhaps more so for me than for some others,) than they would take were we unable to so easily flit back and forth between tasks, or am I talking about finding a way to deal with this problem in myself?)

Oddly, this started as a discussion about level-jumping, about self-reference, but it shifted to a discussion which has at its center something I've been reading about and wanting to write about for the past couple of days but which I don't think had had anything to do with my goal in writing this. There's something afoot here that bears investigation, as it seems almost as if all of this level jumping was actually a useful phenomenon in this case; fighting it would've kept me from getting here. I've often thought that I've taken to indulging myself too easily, without the aid of my internal filters and editors; allowed myself to ramble on without caring that I'm becoming more and more solipsistic in what I'm presenting. Maybe the opposite holds true, and I've taken to stopping the level-jumping when in fact that's how I work out what I need to say about things that ARE external to myself.

At any rate, those things that I've recently read are: Quitting the Paint Factory (on the virtues of idleness), by Mark Slouka, found via Cardhouse, and Understanding Intelligent Men, which is a post at Patum Peperium regarding... well, a few things, but in part it talks about the importance of leisure time, and refers to a book by Joseph Pieper called "Leisure, the Basis of Culture."

Interestingly those two articles are found within fairly political frameworks; the Peperiums are part of a cabal of conservative bloggers around which I've found my weblog attentions orbiting of late, and the Mark Slouka piece is very obviously liberal in its slant (it uses as its counterweight(?) the image of George W. Bush as a man with no time for leisure pursuits, a man of action and not deliberation.)

What I've just written is really just an introduction, or should be. This weblog, or something like it, should be the place where my filterless wonderings are allowed to splatter all over the page. I shouldn't expect to have a thesis fully thought out and ready to be dumped verbatim through the keyboard onto the screen. It'd be easier for me to think that way if I were able to give whatever it is I'm doing here (let's just call it "writing" so that I can stop fucking around with these stupid wishy-washy phrases; with apologies to anyone who actually IS writing on these things,) the priority it deserves. Then again that's all part of exactly the thing I'm talking about.

comments on part 1

So these are the ideas I'm shuffling around here:

1. Improve my ability to prioritize, even if the method for ordering priorities has to allow a certain amount of chance (judging the relative importance of various tasks is, ultimately, impossible on some level.)

2. The importance of concentration; once priorities are decided they should be followed as closely as possible; at least inasmuch as keeping in mind the dangers of deciding to re-prioritize while in the middle of a particular task.

3. Learning to be quiet.

?. Where this weblog fits within my list of priorities. My life is busy not only because I can't focus. Just how much of it I could actually handle comfortably if I were able to manage myself more efficiently I do not know; but this piece has taken me many hours on a Sunday to write, and there is no shortage of other things that I put off to do it.

x. (part II) Politics. (Whaddya call those things that are always there, maybe just out of view, those... elephants in the room?) Though in this case I really wasn't thinking left vs. right while I was writing. My mind's been using a lot of cycles recently chewing through a whole slew of information about what it means to be liberal and what it means to be conservative. I've started a handful of posts that have ultimately lead to a brick wall, either by virtue of the fact that I've gotten to the hard part and set them aside because I've decided something else was more deserving of my attention, or because I've really yet to get any hand-hold on even what it is I'm trying to solve. Today while reading something over on the Patum Peperium site I began considering the serious shortcomings of the whole philosophy of conservatism vs. liberalism. It almost seems as if it's futile to use that spectrum as the framework for any kind of serious thinking. No matter how hard I try I don't fit; I don't know anyone who DOES fit. Nearly all of my friends line up pretty closely with me on most political questions, and for whatever reason we more or less self-identify as leaning toward the left. But anytime I try to take ownership of that, to say, "okay, I'm a liberal!" (usually as a reaction to actions or statements of "conservatives" with which I viscerally disagree,) all it does is to put me in a position where I start having to try to figure out exactly who it is I'm aligning with.

(For instance (dead end): I don't know anyone, I've never TALKED to anyone, who wants to get rid of Christmas. Yet to hear my dad rant, that's what "the liberals" are trying to do: get rid of christmas. They also like to sue doctors (and anyone else,) for ungodly sums of money. They're the reason health insurance costs so much.)

The simplest definition of the philosophies of conservatism vs. liberalism that I see is the idea of conformity vs. non-conformity. I have no problem aligning myself with liberalism when it's defined simply as the belief that unquestioned conformity is, at the very least, boring. (I notice here that, as in other versions of this debate that I've had with myself, I'm defining liberalism as what it is not instead of what it is.) It's easy to call conformity dangerous -- people who do what they're told without deciding for themselves the morality of what they're doing can easily be used for evil. (Huge can of worms here about whether or not morality can be judged objectively (which is, I'm pretty sure, a glaringly "liberal" question to ask.) -- Is a person who's doing what he's told morally culpable for the results of his actions, if that person holds the view that following orders is, in and of itself, a moral way to behave?)

On the other hand, it's easy to see the danger in defining oneself by what one doesn't believe in. (Is this where that "nihilism" thing comes from?) People who are contrary for no other reason than a desire to avoid conformity are, at the very least, annoying. Ultimately neither position requires more thought than the other. Doing what everyone else is doing because that's what everyone else is doing takes as little thought as doing what everyone else isn't doing because no one else is doing it.

Back to my point: How is one of these philosophies inherently more viable than the other? Why are the two sides of our political spectrum defined by two ideologies that are both, in pure form, indefensible? While I'm sure I've heard it said, for good reason, that the people in the middle share more in common with each other than with extremists on either side, the majority still seem to choose an allegience to one of those extremes. (The reason for this, in a two party system, is pretty obvious.)

Likewise, the language of the situation, the idea that there are centerists (or moderates), liberals (left) and conservatives (right), forces what I think is probably an unrealistic depiction of what everyone's arguing about. There must be some significant number of people who are doing things not because it's what everyone always does, and not because no one else has done it yet, but for complicated reasons that have nothing at all to do with whether or not it's traditional.

Clearly I've simplified this tremendously. But I think there's something important in that simplification.

comments on part 2

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